Whenever I’m in Birmingham city centre, for work, for fun, and just about everything else, I can’t shake the impulse to pin-down a quiet coffee shop in which I can read, over the aroma of an extortionate latte. Waterstones has recently become a refuge. A grand four-level structure at the confluence of Birmingham’s high-streets, the book store’s first floor café makes for a quick and convenient jettison from the bustling mass of the UK’s second largest city.
As you sink into the sponge of an armchair, absorbed in a book, stealing the occasional glance at the faces of heavy exhaustion as they emerge from the city below, you’re aware of a mutual understanding, an unspoken contract that exists between yourself and the café’s patrons: this is a place in which we all are islands, individuals. A place of solitude where personal space and self-absorption are valued above all else.
As a self-defined introvert, and abundantly anxious city-dweller, there exist fewer places of more comfort, that are so able to ‘recharge’. It was to my abject horror, then, after a particularly busy eight-hour stint in retail, that the bespectacled man to my right started to talk to me, mid-chapter. The guy was friendly and engaging, but some stubborn, isolationist impulse pushed me to shut the whole thing down (and believe me, I tried). But, the breaker of the contract was persistent, and intermittent attempts to squeeze in a line or two of my book failed to deter. ‘This is it’, I thought. After what must’ve been a day of at least fifty conversations, tempting folk into buying phones, tablets and computers, this one, abundantly well-intentioned guy is going to push me over the edge.
It’s interesting, the ingrained reflex of repulsion that exists within at least some of us, that cautionary urge to shy away from human interaction, despite the efforts of the most well-intentioned, casual of people. Why is it that isolation, silence can be of more comfort than small-talk? Is it rooted in a fear of rejection, or a more fundamental aversion to unpredictability? An innate pitfall of human nature, or a contemporary product of detached individualism, wrought in part by the advent of social media. These questions are up for debate, and I’m no psychologist.
My book now rested on the table in front of me, open to the page I’d left. The conversationalist continued to impart stories of his origin, as a South-African expat, and his work as an artist, poet and radio DJ. I found myself starting to pay attention, to really listen, and began to sense myself becoming more comfortable with this stranger. At some indeterminate point, small-talk slipped into philosophy, and I found myself having less to contribute, so listened some more. Then something interesting happened. The professional, Caribbean woman to my left, who had previously been absorbed in the mass of spreadsheets that wallpapered the screen of her laptop, interjected. We had been speaking of origin – the importance of knowing one’s roots. The lady, Leena, expressed agreement, and spoke with nostalgia of tales of her childhood, growing up under the matriarchy of a stern grandmother, whose herbal remedies and unbounded wisdom were sworn by. The initiator, Garry, had removed himself, leaving myself and Leena to our own devices, and I continued to be warmed by the well-spun wisdom of my new friend. Sometime later Garry returned, accompanied by a young, suited Asian man. Xin was his name, a Chinese magician travelling Europe in pursuit of advancing his craft. A quick wit, Xin brought balance to what was an intensely abstract conversation, and I found myself able to contribute a little more.
We sat in that coffee shop corner, the four of us, until closing – some two hours later. A tremendous arch of conversation had taken us from Egyptian mythology, to homeopathy, Astronomy and, inevitably, American politics. Brimming with an insight into what must constitute the wisdom of a hundred books, I found myself fatigued and emboldened, by a new appreciation of the capacity of small-talk to become ‘long-talk’, and leave a deep impression.
We must struggle with the misguided impulse to isolate, to constrict our perception of the world. After all, what is the value of conversation, if not to enhance our own ability to introspect, through absorption, comparison and revaluation. The four of us never spoke again, after that brief interlude from the loneliness of city living. But, before leaving, we exchanged hugs and shook hands -empowered by each other’s company, before stepping back out into a faceless world.